For over three decades, Anthony Grooms has written
gripping American stories. Born and raised in the South,
he has a sharp understanding of the lives and histories of Black
Americans in the belly of America’s most egregious events.
His work often explores weighty topics and challenges readers
to face hard truths and ask important questions about
the past, present, and future.
In 1995, he released Trouble No More, a collection of short
fiction and made his full-length fiction debut with Bomingham
in 2001. His work is published is a variety of literary journals
and anthologies including Callaloo, African American Review,
and Crab Orchard Review.
In March 2018, Grooms returned to deliver The Vain Conversation,
another offering that tells a powerful American story. We are pleased to share our interview with him below.
"The most fruitful conversations are likely to be difficult. They must occur across the lines of differences."
Your new novel, The Vain Conversation was released in March 2018. Bombingham, your last novel, was released 2001. Did you make a conscious effort to take this amount of time in between books?
The length of time between publications was co-incidental and certainly unplanned. In fact, I began The Vain Conversation five years before Bombingham. Though I didn’t work consistently on it, it has taken 27 years from conception to publication. In that time, I have published two other books and written two novels which are now in circulation. I have also written and published many poems and collected them into a manuscript about travels in Africa. The long time it has taken for the publication of The Vain Conversation reflects both my struggle to find a form for the novel and the timidity of the publishing industry to embrace the subject of American race violence from my particular point-of-view.
The Vain Conversation deals with an American tragedy—a lynching of two black couples in 1946 Georgia. It is inspired by real events that took place that same year in the state. Why did you choose to explore these historical events with this novel?
When is history really historical? The past makes the world we live in now, and the legacy of Jim Crow is strong with us. Yet some of our popular novels and movies on issues arising from Jim Crow—so-called race redemption narratives--suggest the ease with which we have reckoned with the violence and deprivation of this recent past. They settle for happy, often self-satisfying, endings and ignore the obvious. Jim Crow oppression was pervasively injurious to black people, and in a different way, to white people, too, and yet there has been no deep and honest reckoning with that nasty bit of American history. There has been no truth and reconciliation, no sincere attempt at repairing the damage of, or ameliorating the resurgence of race and caste oppression. The Vain Conversation follows Lonnie Henson, a white witness to the lynchings as he attempts seeks a way to redemption and ultimately salvation. Answering for race crimes and oppression is still one of the great moral challenges of the American people.
"Answering for race crimes and oppression is still one of the great moral challenges of the American people."
"I’ve come to realize that historical writing and science fiction writing are not all that different in terms of world building."
What is the meaning of the novel’s title, The Vain Conversation?
The phrase is taken from the First Epistle of Peter and refers to a tradition of sin that is passed from generation to generation. I think it appropriately describes the United States on the issue of race violence and oppression. Further, the phrase can be punned with. A vain conversation could be a prideful one, or it could be a conversation in vain—both ways to describe our public debate about race and other differences, especially in popular media. I think that in private corners, constructive conversations are occurring and I hope that my novel might promote thoughtful conversation.
As you mentioned, a young white child witnesses the horrific lynching of the black couples. You tell the story from the perspectives of three people involved: a victim, a perpetrator, and the child/witness. Why did you decide to tell the story from these three perspectives?
From the beginning, I knew I wanted to tell the story broadly—that it was one that demanded various points-of-view. In early drafts, I had several other points-of-view, as well, but over years of revision those fell away until these three, which view the lynching from distinct vantage points, remained.
What do you want readers to take away from the new novel?
It sounds strange to say about a novel about a lynching, but first and foremost, I want readers to be entertained. That is to say, I want them to become fully immersed in the world of the characters, to be removed from the present to the time of the novel. Then I want them to feel deeply for all of my characters, victims and perpetrators alike. Only in this way can they find a broad empathy with the human condition. Finally, I would like them to be provoked to think about our history and how it manifests today.
Much of your work centers on race in the American South, particularly during the mid-20th century and era of the Civil Rights Movement. What about that period speaks to you? What lesson(s) from that period do you think America has either learned from or ignored?
In short, my experiences as a rural black Southerner growing up in the mid-twentieth century has centered me on this subject. The Civil Rights Movement and the war in Viet Nam were the great moral and social challenges of my coming-of-age. As tumultuous as it was, the decade of the 60s was an exciting time and it is the milieu in which I am stewed. The great lesson of the period is that social change for the better is possible. What we might ignore, though, is that change comes about as the result of thousands, even millions, of individual choices. The moral direction of a country isn’t determined by government, it is determined by the individual acting in concert with many others.
What is your opinion of contemporary issues involving race and identity in America? How can we advance conversations about these issues?
Obviously the government of the day is regressive and it reflects the attitudes of millions of people who feel fearful of demographic change, or who have limited sympathy for others or are dogmatic about their values. But I am optimistic that the majority are or can be engaged in finding understanding on race and other issues. First and foremost, the most fruitful conversations are likely to be difficult. They must occur across the lines of differences. And they must be conversation in which listening and contemplation are more important than speaking. They must not be debates, but rather a willful pursuit of understanding. The goal isn’t to persuade, but to sympathize and to build tolerance. The conversation might begin with stories—stories growing out of childhood and personal experiences.
You’re from the South (Louisa, Virginia) and currently live in Atlanta. In what ways has the South shaped your perspective or worldview, specifically of your craft?
Not only did I grow up in the South, I grew up in the rural South during the Civil Rights Movement era and the Viet Nam War, and I have a large extended family with some members who lived in northern cities. From the rural setting, I developed a strong love of nature—of stars and forests, wildlife and geology. But I also learned to appreciate the pace and sophistication of cities from my city relatives. The support of my family and our black neighbors was important when, beginning in 1967, I ventured across the color line as a school integrator in what was called “The Freedom of Choice” program. Here I began to see whites as individuals, not as a monolithic and uniformly powerful group. The era, with its lively arts and rhetoric and its incremental social progress, gave me an optimistic view. All of this makes its way into my stories, which I think of as character driven, socially aware, and ultimately optimistic.
Are there any particular stories or subjects that you’d like to write about in the future? If so, what are they and why?
I tend to be attracted to historical subjects—my novel which is circulating now is about a Black Viet Nam War deserter to Sweden and how he adjusts. This story is based on a little remembered aspect of recent American history. But, I also love science. I’ve come to realize that historical writing and science fiction writing are not all that different in terms of world building. So I am slowly turning my focus to science fiction writing. I blame it all those stars I saw growing up in the country.
Ice Poems, your only collection of poetry, was released in 1988. How does writing poetry compare to writing fiction?
I see understanding poetry as a fundamental skill for writers of any genre. Compression, nuance, sound are all important to me as both a poet and a prose writer. Poems are shorter, for the most part, but not necessarily easier than prose writing. As a poet, I turn more strongly toward the image and to lyrical expression than I do in prose. In prose, I emphasize characterization and narrative. One of the challenges of writing prose, especially a novel, is that it becomes all consuming—taking years at a time—years in which I have little time to imagine poems.
Who are some of your favorite writers of the moment? What’s on your reading list?
I hold Ernest Gaines as one of the finest of American writers. I also owe a lot to Richard Bausch and Susan Shreve, my mentors. I enjoy a host of writers in different genres, and from different times and places. Right now, I am enjoying Gray Stewart’s Haylow, a satire of Southern manners, and Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, a love story about an unfairly incarcerated man. Recently, I liked Ravi Howard's Driving the King about Nat King Cole’s driver during the Montgomery Bus Boycott and John Holman’s Triangle Ray, a character study set in North Carolina. I’m beginning Pam Durban’s The Tree of Forgetfulness about a lynching in South Carolina and continuing Ruth C. Yow’s Students of the Dream, a study of the re-segregation of a public school. My favorite poets of the moment are Frank X. Walker and Terrence Hayes.
Do you feel that you have a purpose as a writer? If so, what is it?
That’s an existential problem. Of course, I have a purpose as a writer or I wouldn’t write. But does the practice drive the purpose or does the purpose drive the practice? I don’t know. Perhaps the former. I think I know what the purpose is—but can I be sure? To entertain through beautiful storytelling and to provoke deep thought about humanity. But isn’t this what all writers say?